Caroline Wilkinson




          We were coat-check
girls together. The brass hooks
above the clips for umbrellas
numbered like the streets
outside. Forty-four,

          the street, where
we took briefcases that bent
the clips ("put them below
on the floor," you said, training
me)—for us, that street
of social clubs was all doormen,

          awnings, and the piano
bar where we went after work.
For me, the hooks were the metal,
re-enforced spines of my mother,
gorgeous hunchback pastor,
the tips, tailbones. For you,
the hooks

          climbed to the nineties
where you would walk when
your father would change the locks
in Midtown. The strip clubs
had none of the electricity of
fur coats, cashmere, and us. How
we shocked. Of tips, the members
said, "They're prohibited." Us

          too, we knew they
meant. We palmed ones from
guests and left, smoking. In the bar,
we joked about the big hit in the coat-
check book-stash: Sadomasochism
in Everyday Life. Masochism
says my mother's metal spine
rods won't rot in her newly buried
body. Sadism says

          her spine rises without metal
to a heaven we will never know.
The piano player sang, "Georgia
on My Mind" when everyday life
was about being thrown out.
We answered with numb laughter.
In each other, we looked for what
my mother's question-mark spine,
collapsing, no longer asks for—
directions, the time.




Both our mothers said, I'm beyond the beyond.
Both said, You're cruising for a bruising,
and Shape up or ship out. Only mine said,
Your ass is grass. Your mother's mother,
however, said, Your ass is grass. That's according
to your mother, who did not like her mom much.

Your mother, when asked to do one thing
too many, said, Why don't you stick a broomstick
up my ass and I'll sweep the floor while I'm at it?
My mother, when asked to do too much, sang,
Undertow, undertow, undertow—which meant
we should not speak until the ocean threw her up.

My mom is dead. Yours is feeble. Now yours says,
Oh well, a lot, sweetly. My mother beat me. Yours
left. Mine left. We're all leaving. We're beyond
the beyond already. We leave cleanly, we tell ourselves,          
having no children, just as my mother told herself,
I have no children, when pulled out by force.




"Georgia on Forty-Fourth" explores nostalgia not at its usual slow pace but at its quickest. I wanted to walk across Forty-Fourth Street as swiftly as Lorine Niedecker travels Wisconsin's waters in "Paean to Place" and Arthur Smith recalls California's bounty in "Paradise."

"Undertow" is supposed to be slower, and it is. But I was surprised to learn (the poem began as a joke) that the speaker does not have far to go.